Listening to yourself listening through the Organ of Corti

Martin CullingfordFri 8th July 2011
Listening to yourself listening: the Organ of Corti (photo: Chris Kennedy)Listening to yourself listening: the Organ of Corti (photo: Chris Kennedy)

New Music Award-winner unveiled in City of London

When you listen, really listen, what do you hear? The likes of John Cage have of course already encouraged us to focus on the aural experience of the sounds around us, and it's a challenge – or perhaps rather an invitation – laid down by the latest winner of the PRS for Music Foundation New Music Award-winner, the Organ of Corti.

First, what is it? Well, it's a three metre square of 90 four metre high acrylic pipes, through which you walk, listening as you go. It was initially sited to one side of the beautifully-restored St Paul's Cathedral in the heart of the City of London, before heading on tour to a lay-by in the Lake District, a lake in the Cotswolds, and a weir in Worcester. 

The cylinders together form a sonic crystal, and when sound waves reach the cylinders, the frequencies are accentuated and attenuated. That is, what you hear is sometimes filtered, sometimes enhanced, usually altered. As its developers Frances Crow and David Prior, who together form Liminal, put it, it's “an experimental instrument that recycles noise from the environment. It does not make any sound of its own, but rather it attempts to draw our attention to the sounds already present by framing them in a new way.” It challenges us to “listen to ourselves listen”. Prior neatly compared it to the work of artist James Turrell, whose work delineates a certain area of sky, focussing our attention on it, “framing serendipity”. Acousticians, meanwhile, are looking at this sort of technology for more functional purposes – noise barriers for roads for example.

I walked through sonic crystal on arrival, and, feeling harried somewhat by the queue behind, didn't really notice what I was meant to hear. I tried again later when it was (slightly) less busy, with a little more opportunity to linger and listen. Which you need to do: it's quite subtle, but I imagine the sense of focus is part of the point. You hear different elements of the traffic noise, those elements changing as you move through. I'd recommend choosing an unhurried quiet hour though.

Leaving London, where it was hosted by the City of London Festival, the Organ of Corti now moves to (from July 9) a lay-by on the A685 overlooking the M6, at Tebay Gorge, Cumbria, where there's a greater juxtaposition between beauty and sonic noise – between the Lake district and the road. And then it moves to beside a waterfall, just as noisy but, observes Prior, it's interesting that similar sorts of noise – the sea, or a road from a distance – are viewed positively or negatively based largely on their origins. But that's another project perhaps – maybe for another round of the ever-intriguing PRS New Music Awards.

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is Editor and Publisher of Gramophone - brought up in Britten country on the Suffolk coast, when not practising the guitar he can often be found enjoying Evensong.

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